An investigation launched by the Dawson News & Advertiser last July comes to an end Friday, when Gov. Nathan Deal visits Dawsonville to sign a legislative bill into law.
The bill forces one of Georgias most secretive government agencies The Georgia Pardons and Paroles Board to provide the public with some information about its decision making.
Im honored Governor Deal chose to come to Dawson to sign this legislation, said House Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville), who sponsored the legislation.
For the first time since 1953, when then Gov. Herman Talmadge signed the boards secrecy provisions into law, the board will make available to the public a written decision when it grants a pardon, parole or commutes a death sentence, according House Bill 71, which the House and Senate passed April 2.
Tanners original bill asked that all records the board used in making its decision be made public. However, the bill was significantly weakened in the Senate, and the boards actions and the information it uses to make those decisions, will remain confidential state secrets.
Deal signs the bill at 10:15 a.m. Friday, May 1, at the Dawsonville City Hall, 415 Highway 53.
The issue first came to the forefront as a result of multiple articles that appeared in the Dawson News & Advertiser about the Tommy Waldrip case and a lack of transparency at the board, Tanner said last week.
Waldrip received a death sentence for his part in the brutal beating and shooting death of Dawson resident Keith Evans in 1991. At the time, Evans, 23, was working at a convenience store in Cumming and was the only witness that came forward for the state after the store was robbed, according to court records. Evans was also attending college and studying to be an accountant.
Waldrip, now 69, appealed his conviction six times over a 20 year period three times to the Georgia Supreme Court and three times to the U.S. Supreme Court. Records show all appeals were denied.
The Evans family was given no information about why the pardons and paroles board made a decision July 9 to commute Waldrips death sentence to life in prison less than 24 hours prior to his scheduled execution time.
The jury and judge sat there and listened to all the evidence and made their decision based on that evidence, Keith Evans sister, Angela DeCoursey, told the Dawson News & Advertiser in July. And thats why they found him guilty. For a board to come in 23 years later and change it, just isnt right.
According to DeCoursey, the board made its decision in less than two hours.
We didnt even have time to get home from the hearing in Atlanta when we got the call, she said.
The Dawson News & Advertiser contacted the board asking that it release the details of its decision. It refused, citing Georgia law that its decisions are confidential state secrets.
Georgia is one of only four states whose pardons and paroles board has the sole discretion to grant clemency. Other states are Nebraska, Nevada and Utah.
The newspaper also contacted the Dawson County Board of Commissioners and the Georgia Sheriffs Association (which represents 159 elected sheriffs) asking if they would request the information. All agreed. The pardons board sent a two-sentence letter to both organizations telling them no.
The five-member, governor-appointed board, also refused to say how its members voted on Waldrips commutation. Gov. Deal appointed two of those members: James Mills and Braxton Cotton. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Terry E. Barnard (chair), James Donald and Albert Murray.
James Donald in January stepped down from the board. Gov. Deal in February, appointed Brian Owens to replace him.
Tanner said the new law wont impact the Evans family.
Unfortunately, the bill isnt retroactive, Tanner said last week. The Evans family wanted a reason why. In the future the board is required to give that reason to a family. In speaking with the Evans, they wanted to ensure no other family has to live through what they did.
After signing House Bill 71, Deal heads from Dawson to Lumpkin County to sign an adult literacy bill, also sponsored by Tanner.
The governors office and the pardons and paroles board were unavailable for comment Monday due to a state holiday.